Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In conversation with... Daniel Harris

Journalist, Manchester United supporter and post-Glazer Old Trafford boycotter Daniel Harris charted a season following the Club in his book On the Road: A Journey Through a Season. Here he discusses about his debut paperback and pressing issues concerning United...

Samuel Luckhurst: In regards to the book, was it solely down to John Brewin that you wrote it or did you nudge him in the direction of the project?


Daniel Harris: It wasn’t actually intended as a book - I knew John via RedIssue’s message board and I messaged him halfway through the previous season informing him if he had any shifts going I’d be keen for them, and suggested some pieces I was interested in writing. And then I told him a few things that I’d done for RedIssue and newspapers, so he commissioned me to for those pieces and a few shifts. Also around that time, ESPN picked up Setanta’s rights and were ramping up their coverage, so he asked me to write a weekly blog. He knew I followed United around and asked me to write about that, and that was the brief, but it was always in my mind from the beginning that it might make a book.

SL: Regarding the writing style, was anybody opposed to the free rein you showcase in the book at all?

DH: Not really. I thanked John in the acknowledgments and aside from giving me the opportunity to write, and some thoughtful editing, that’s what I’m thanking him for. Other than things we had occasional discussions about, I was pretty much able to say whatever I fancied. There are a few things that are in the book that weren’t in the blog for reasons - not of decency exactly, as I wouldn’t consider swearing to be indecent - but ESPN aren’t going to allow you to use the word ‘c***’. I felt it necessary to do so it on a few occasions but thought I limited myself quite well in the book.

But in general I can’t have any complaints at all, quite the reverse. It was just nice to be able to write, and because it was a blog as opposed to match reports, there was no need to write to much about the match, which is what everyone else was doing, and I was filing on Fridays anyway. So if I’m writing about the previous week’s games there’s really not that much to be said that hasn’t been said already unless you can contextualise it slightly differently. And anyway, in a way, what’s happening on the pitch is the least important thing about football, and certainly not what I was trying to do.

SL: Did you tweak the book much from your blog posts?

DH: I certainly didn’t change any of my opinions, and if I had have done I might have taken a couple of the things out I said about Obertan! One of my mates recently said to me, having read the book, that just before Rooney started scoring headers, I chastised him for doing so often enough, convinced I’d added it in, but I hadn’t, which I proved via my praise for Obertan (who I maintain has some talent, but is just a complete pussy). But part of the point of the blog and the book was that everything was contemporary, written as it happened and immediately afterwards, and I didn’t want to change that.

SL: Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish that you’d have addressed more in the book?

DH: I’ll be watching football sometimes and think of a perspective that I’d like to have written about. And there were other things I wanted to say at the time, but just couldn’t make them relevant, though I’ve recorded them somewhere and hopefully will get to them someday.

SL: Do you find boycotting Old Trafford as much a wrench as you expected it to be?

DH: I suppose so. In the first few weeks and months after the takeover it probably stung more than it does now as it’s become a part of life that when United aren’t at home, I don’t go, when they’re away, I generally do go. It’s something that will occur to me every time United play at home that you’re more or less annoyed depending on who the game is against. But I’ve been to Old Trafford on a few times just on freebies and it’s also fair to say there are elements of it that were annoying in 2005 that are a lot more annoying now. I would say that the people who have left, for one reason or another – not just because of the Glazers – haven’t been replaced by people who are suitable successors, aware of how you should behave in a football ground, and it’s nowhere near as great as it once was.

People have been telling each other to sit down at football matches for longer than we’ve been alive, but it’s not just standing up. There was a time that when United were playing a team and giving them a hiding then they’d be singing ‘who the f****** hell are you?’ and not ‘who are ya?’. It’s people who have just watched a lot of Soccer AM on Sky, and you also have it when Darron Gibson gets the ball and everyone shouts ‘shoot’. United have the most phenomenal repertoire of terrace songs and chants that absolutely spanks anything that any other team has available to them and it’s just a shame when you hear generic Nationwide nonsense.

SL: Do you get much stick for boycotting?

DH: No, not at all. When I did it in 2005 it was just seen as a personal choice but the only real animosity that I’ve seen was straight after the takeover when there were some anti-FC United songs that were aired – in particular, I remember a game at Highbury where that was the case.

Fergie’s animosity towards FC has been especially disappointing. To insult and demean a club that are so many leagues below his, and to feign ignorance as to why supporters oppose the Glazers and opt not to go, is just needlessly mean-spirited. He’s not the first champagne socialist, but his attitude in the latter part of his career is totally irreconcilable with the Govan toolmaker who’s proud of who he is. David Gill, on the other hand, was never one of us - he’s just a t***.

SL: Given United’s away support is beginning to take quite a lot of flak, would you say that’s on the downward spiral?

DH: I gave it a bit of stick myself, and given where the tickets are ending up now, it’s inevitable that there’ll be certain atmospheres which are just rubbish. But when it’s good, it’s still really good and better than everybody else’s. How much it now costs to go doesn’t help, though that’s not to say that someone who can afford to go is any more of a Red than someone who can’t. When you go to a football match you want it to be as rowdy as possible, and of course it’s become less rowdy, which is a bad thing - yet when it is rowdy at times it makes you cringe, and I definitely cringe more often than I used to.

SL: Why are you so certain that if Ferguson spoke out against the Glazers in the first place the takeover wouldn’t have happened?

DH: What’s crucial is whether the banks would have lent the money. It’s a lot of money and the banks needed to be sure they’d get it back. Had the Glazers had to go and hire a new manager, then lending the money would have represented a far greater risk – one they simply couldn’t countenance. Whether or not Fergie could have stopped it - I think that he could, and also that he knew that he could as well - he certainly knew the implications of a takeover, and that if he spoke out it might never happen.

SL: Do you think he didn’t because his job was at risk?

DH: I don’t think his job was at risk because ultimately, they (Glazers) are business people but they’re not going to sack Ferguson if they think it would be better not to. Their need to pay the interest would have overtaken any kind of vindictiveness.

But what I would also say is that Fergie’s position at that point was not as fortified as it once was, because of the whole Coolmore affair, the financial dodginess, and the miserable performance of the team during 03/04 and 04/05. They’d been knocked out of the European Cup in the group stages a few months after the Glazers arrived and there was never a point in the season where they were seriously challenging for the title. So his position was under threat for the first time in a long while, but when the Glazers came in, suddenly his position was more fortified than it had been previously – they needed him more than he needed them. He had certainly said he was against the takeover and that he would do something about it - until it came to the moment when he something actually had to be done. And there’s no argument about that – it’s not my opinion because we can see the evidence, so at best it’s duplicitous, but you might also say it’s traitorous.

It also stings each time he speaks out now, when what’s going on is so obvious and in black and white – and we can see it in the bond documents. It’s not an opinion that the Glazers have taken lots of money out of United, it’s a fact. United have paid hundreds of millions of pound for the privilege of having the Glazers own the club. It’s not an arguable ‘it might be like this, it might be like that’, and the things both Fergie and Gill have said they’ve said. They’re on the record, everyone heard them and everyone saw them. Actualy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gill wanted shot of this job, on the basis that he’s just had to talk so much s*** and take so much shit for so long. I’m sure if he could have had the FA job he would have jumped at that.

SL: Would you say that you’ve come to truly despise Ferguson post-Glazer?

DH: ‘Despise’ is too strong a word. I despise what he did and is doing, but I don’t despise him. If you attempt any level of objectivity, it’s hard to conclude that he’s a good bloke, but I have a subjective relationship with him! There are still moments when you love him, and momentarily forget some of the things he has done, but the tragedy is that it needn’t have been this way.

SL: Had Rooney’s contract row not been so much about his avarice, do you think he could have generated something beyond the Green & Gold campaign?

DH: Evra, Solskjaer and Cantona have all spoken out to varying degrees against the Glazers before which is refreshing since one of the things which is most annoying is when players will talk bullsh*t and pretend everything’s okay or just say nothing at all. With Rooney, it’s impossible to know where the right is in those discussions because everyone was right in some way or another and everyone was wrong too, acting out of self-interest and almost definitely not a pleasant person. Rooney was right with what he said but to go about it the way he did was wrong - but on the other hand you’re thinking ‘thank f*** someone said it’ because it has to be said. Because if I were Rooney looking around the dressing room, I also would have been concerned – I’m concerned looking at a squad list.

We know Rooney’s not one of us - he left Everton as soon as he could, so we knew what we were getting when we signed him. As to whether he helped with the green and gold, the bottom line is the opportunity was there to get rid of the Glazers in 2005, and again last summer, but wasn’t taken. If Rooney had gone, perhaps people would have done the necessary, but more likely, enough would have believed whatever spin was put on it, or decided they simply couldn’t stop going, to allow the Glazers to remain.

The only way they seem likely to go now is if they can’t afford the interest, receive an astronomical offer, or if there’s significant and sustained on-pitch failure – the only thing that might persuade sufficient numbers of season ticket holders not to renew.

Friday, September 8, 2017

In conversation with... Daniel Taylor

For over a decade Daniel Taylor has been The Guardian’s main man in Manchester, covering both United and City.

His 2007 book This is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson – The Uncut Story of a Football Genius was published to critical acclaim yet it led to a ban from Ferguson’s press conferences that still stands today.

Last weekend Danny shared his thoughts on covering United, Ferguson and his book.

Samuel Luckhurst: You started covering United in 2000, how did that come about?

Daniel Taylor: It’s all fairly straightforward, moved up to Manchester to do some freelancing with a guy who was established up here (Ian Whittell), brazenly used his contacts among the national newspaper sportdesks and the Guardian asked if I would go full-time. I could have gone to the Mail, but the Mail back then was a strange place (imagine 12 angry men shouting at each other from behind their desks all day). Oh, and the Mirror too, but they were banned from United at the time, so I took the easy option. Plus the Guardian’s, well, the Guardian, isn’t it? Great newspaper, loyal readership, Manchester background. Suits a plastic Manc like me.

SL: Was Ferguson initially diplomatic towards you as a novice covering United?

DT: The first time I met him, he shook my hand but didn’t really say anything. Just looked me up and down. The coward in me was relatively satisfied with that (I’d been warned to prepare for anything). Then, when I’d left, he asked Peter Fitton (then of the Sun): “Who the fuck’s that? He’s not a reporter, he looks more like the bass player from Oasis.”

I’ve seen other newbies get a lot worse though. I don’t have a London accent, which helps – he’s immediately suspicious when reporters are sent up from London. One guy, married with kids, in his mid-30s, tried to introduce himself once and Fergie cut him dead. Fergie just turned to us and went: “Jesus Christ, do they get them straight from fucking school these days.”

SL: Has he mellowed as much as he suggests?

DT: He has with the players. I’ve spoken *clears throat for blatant name-drop* to Ryan Giggs about this a few times. A lot of the players don’t speak English for starters, so yelling at them isn’t going to do much good. Plus footballers these days are a sensitive lot, aren’t they? You could imagine Nani bursting into tears at . . . (OK, I’m joking; no more death threats please, Twitter crazies, thanks)

One of Fergie’s better qualities, I always think, is the way he moves with the times. He knows it’s a different breed these days. That said, he still has his moments – Crawley at home, for example – when it’s full-on rage.

As for the press, he no longer shouts at us like the (good) old days, but that’s only because he rarely gets the opportunity to shout at us. Since December 2005 he changed the format of his press conferences so that everyone is in the same room together – written journalists, radio, TV etc etc. Before, he would have ‘separates.’ Now, with television cameras present, he knows he can’t ‘Hairdryer’ anyone. It would be on News at Ten if he did. Seriously, I’ve seen it many times. Everything you’ve heard . . it’s worse, believe me. So the old bollockings are a thing of the past now. His press conferences now are tense, joyless affairs. The journalists have to abide to rules about what is accepted and what is not, and Fergie just looks like he would rather be chewing on barbed wire. It’s a bland set-up, with formulaic answers, whereas a bollocking was worthwhile every now and then behind closed doors because it was usually accompanied by something worthwhile in terms of copy.

SL: When did you latch on to the idea for 'This Is the One'?

DT: It was my own idea, a legacy of all the dinners out and trips away with other journalists and hearing all the stories about Fergie/United that had never been written about. There were so many of them I just thought it would be good to start keeping a diary of covering the club and see where it took me. Initially it was just going to be one year, but then it became two and, to be honest, I was fortunate because those two years (2005-07) were a wild graph of ups and downs. It starts in the summer when Keane walked off the training pitch in Portugal and Fergie yelling at everyone who got in his way, and it culminates two years later with him winning the title and him pouring champagne for the journalists (plastic cups, mind). In hindsight, it was the perfect time to do the book in terms of showing his many different faces, good and bad.

SL: Paddy Barclay spoke with Ferguson directly about his 'Football, Bloody Hell' biography, only to be rebuffed initially and when he went to Milan to speak to Mourinho, Ferguson messaged Mourinho to curb any loquacious help he may have been offering Barclay. Did you consciously avoid speaking to Ferguson directly about the book given his hostility towards unauthorised books about him?

DT: I wrote to him, via an email to the club’s press office, in January 2007 (the book came out in May) to say I was planning a diary-style book and received a reply from the press office saying ‘fine, good luck, plenty of material to go with!’ So full steam ahead! Unfortunately, it later transpired that the press office hadn’t actually shown him my original email. For what reason, I don’t know. I can only imagine it was because of their general reluctance to speak to him (fear, you could call it). So when the book came out, the first he saw of it was a review in the Independent. In Fergie’s mind, this made the book a deception and, to be fair, I can see his point a little. Cue ban from his press conferences etc etc. I’ve tried to explain to him since then but you know what he's like – once his mind is made up . . . It’s been four years nearly, so I doubt it will ever change. It’s not ideal but you just get on with it.

SL: You say in This Is the One that United will be a 'much more boring football club to cover' in the wake of Keane's exit, has that proven to be the case?

DT: I was covering the Republic of Ireland in 2002 so Keane, for me, will always be THE story. After he left OT the papers had certainly lost someone who could clear the back pages for you, but . . . did I actually say that? I can’t remember that. I hope you’re not misquoting me (my job, remember).

SL: You did indeed. Page 88. Did this season's Rooney saga trump Keane's monthly incidents in 2005?

Certainly the biggest story for a while. It’s a rare form of excitement for a journalist when something like that is breaking. It came out on the Sunday and wasn’t publicly confirmed until the Tuesday afternoon, remember, so there were a lot of people jumping up and down at the start to insist it couldn’t be true (lots of ‘but, but, but . . there’s no quotes’). Then, when Fergie went public, the following two/three days, the PR war that erupted between the two factions and the second of Fergie’s press conferences (the cow analogy etc), that was Manchester United’s manager at his very best. He was playing the media, acting to a quality De Niro would be proud of, all of it . . but he was fucking brilliant.

SL: Has a United player ever chastised you a la Gary Neville grilling David McDonnell in Budapest?

DT: No. But Phil Neville stuck two fingers up at me once when I was late for a press conference and had started sounding my horn because he was blocking the lane to Carrington signing autographs. Does that count? Roy Keane road-raged me once too, which was an interesting experience. He went fucking nuts.

SL: What's the most memorable United game you've covered?

DT: It’s difficult to say. It’s different when you’re working. You enjoy it, but it’s not the same. For example, John Terry misses his penalty and seriously the whole pressbox in Moscow is thinking the same thing (expletives removed): ‘We are miles past deadline already and why is the wireless not working?’ I support Forest and can remember all sorts of games from growing up, but my memory doesn’t work in the same way for games involving other clubs. Plus I wasn’t in Barcelona in 1999, which I suppose would be the obvious stand-out match (though I doubt many of the journalists who had just filed their match reports at 1-0 would agree it was the best two minutes in the history of football).

SL: Are you looking forward to Ferguson retiring if it makes life easier for you and the other journalists?

DT: I don’t really think that way. For starters, we’ve been talking about Fergie retiring for nearly a decade now and he’s still here, going strong. Yes, the next manager might be nicer to the press but he might also be the blandest man in the world. I quite enjoy it as it is (even if there are times when I’d like to drop a flowerpot on his head). A change of manager would be really interesting – strange almost – but it’s difficult to imagine it, even though we all know it’s approaching (soonish). Maybe.

SL: Someone like Neil Custis appears to have a patent loathing for United and what they stand for whereas through your reporting, there seems to be a soft spot despite harsh treatment towards you. Has that been the case since you started covering United?

DT: I’m sure Neil would disagree with that but, for me, what is there to complain about? Yes, you get disillusioned sometimes. Yeah, I wish Fergie was a bit more media-friendly, that there was more access to the players, not such a hostile them-and-us attitude and all the rest of it. There’s plenty I don’t like about United: the owners, the deceit, the way they think it appropriate to sue one of their own supporters, the way they have turned supporters into ‘customers.’ But there’s plenty to admire too. When you cover a club, meet the people (of which there are many good uns) and travel the world watching them, you inevitably get a softish spot for them. It was the same when I started out in journalism (covering Derby and Leicester, as a Forest fan, and making friends from both clubs). I’ve been to 40 different countries with United and you end up feeling a small *tiny* part of the club (like a tick on the back of a dog, you could say) and I’d much rather cover a club that sell out all away matches (ie make every match feel like an occasion), have a strong supporter network, good fanzines etc. That said, it doesn’t go any further than that – when I’m watching United in the pressbox I am generally thinking about a) the score at the City Ground and b) the usual panic/stress of writing and filing my match report BEFORE the game ends. It really doesn’t matter to me who wins. On a similar theme, I generally wish City well too because I’m a journalist first and foremost and I want to cover successful clubs, the big stories, Champions League nights etc. So I’ve enjoyed City suddenly challenging at the top, too. If @steve_mcfc is reading this (he will be) . . I mean that, big man xx

SL: And finally… Bébé: more Muhammad Ali or Ali Dia?

DT: I have to be careful with this one because Fergie – clever bloke that he is – rebounded it on to me last time by saying it was “vicious” reporting (to report that he hadn’t been considered ready enough for the reserves). So I will simply quote you a (middle-ranking) staff member at OT: “It’s like watching a competition winner.’

In conversation with... Daniel Harris

Journalist, Manchester United supporter and post-Glazer Old Trafford boycotter Daniel Harris charted a season following the Club in his bo...